In the summer of 1846, Ford Madox Brown stayed in modest lodgings at Southend-on-Sea, accompanied by his three-year-old daughter Lucy. He had returned from a stay in Rome. His wife had died on the journey home. Millie Smith, the subject of this painting, was his landlady’s daughter aged about five, and was a playmate for Lucy.
At first glance this picture invites comparison with the early Victorian primitive portraits that might be more associated with a country painter. The disparities of scale between the table leg, chair back and over-large child’s head could suggest a lack of skill or inexperience. There is, however, an accomplished rendering of the flower vase, tablecloth, flesh-painting and the startlingly strong directness of the sitter’s pose. Victorian child portraiture tended to be sweet and sentimental, but Brown painted Millie with remarkable naturalness and directness. It is a painting of a very small child seen at her own eye level.